A science-y tweet makes my heart skip a beat

When I first heard about Twitter (several years before I actually understood what it was) – I remember thinking it sounded silly. Who cares what celebrities are thinking (Figure 1)? I dismissed everything Twitter-related as irrelevant and continued on my merry way. I think it was during Evolution 2011 that Jeremy (from this blog) suggested I join Twitter because you can follow interesting talks and remain engaged throughout conferences. It took a little while for me to work up a real affection for Twitter but the longer I’ve been a member (and perhaps the longer Science and scientists have had to assimilate it into our work world), the more useful I find it (Figure 2).

Figure 1: An example of the "Why bother?" side of Twitter. Why 103,000 people thought this was worth repeating via "retweeting" is beyond me because it gets dumber each time I read it...

Figure 1: An example of the “Why bother?” side of Twitter. And why 103,000 people bothered repeating this via “retweeting” is beyond me. It gets dumber each time I read it.

Figure 2: Why you actually should bother. Devin's posts include (top to bottom) - passing along a job opportunity, interesting publication, a professional interaction about science spam, a second paper and link to our blog!

Figure 2: Why you actually should bother. Devin’s posts include (top to bottom) – passing along a job opportunity, interesting publication, a professional interaction about science spam, a second paper and link to our blog!

Regarding social media and scientists in general, Bik & Goldstein have written a great introduction. They discuss the pros and cons of several platforms (i.e., blogs, Facebook, Twitter) and how to choose amongst these depending on your interests. For example – are you most interested in communicating science to the “general public”? TO THE FLOW CHART! Perhaps creating your own content in the form of a blog is for you. Alternatively, are you more interested in compiling cool stuff you’ve found from across the world wide web? Consider Facebook.

Despite the ubiquity of social media in our world, many scientists are reluctant to embrace it. That’s somewhat understandable – “Why bother?” is an easy question to ask and get no answer to if you’re “unplugged”. Bik & Goldstein outline four major “research benefits from an online presence”.

1. Online Tools Improve Research Efficiency

Here the authors argue that being connected in the social-sphere allows researchers to remain up to date on relevant developments and that you can even use social media to conduct research. Online communities centered around research topics or tools help disseminate information and allow a conversation to occur between interested parties. Being active online allows your expertise and research to interact with other people. And in some cases, these people may just be able to tell you which statistic to calculate, remember a citation that’s on the tip of your tongue, or identify that bird species you can’t quite figure out.

2. Online Visibility Helps Track and Improve Scientific Metrics

If you’re online, your career may benefit. Work that is blogged or tweeted about may end up being more successful, both by traditional metrics (e.g., citations) and non-traditional ways of measuring impact (e.g., downloads). You can be your own best advocate by promoting yourself and your awesome research online.

3. Social Media Enhances Professional Networking

Isn’t it more fun going to meetings and events when you know people? Especially people with whom you share professional interests and mutual respect? That’s what this category boils down to. Furthermore, you can tweet about papers or talks that you find particularly interesting or send them to specific people that you think would appreciate knowing about them. You can also stay up-to-the-minute with semi-professional interests, like diversity in STEM or global warming. Job openings are another great use of professional networks. At meetings you can quickly tell people about impromptu discussions, where a group of people is sitting during the lunch break or get reminded about the “can’t miss” talk you were about to miss. During the Evolution meeting last year, I put my


Title Slide from Evolution 2013 (click to make bigger)

and received questions, comments and even a compliment in real-time. That’s really helpful!

4. Broadening “Broader Impacts”

Social media allows you to reach people and have an impact where you and your science might not otherwise be a part of the conversation. We can b. Scientists as a group can also have a sizable impact when certain concepts go viral. The “This is what a scientist looks like” is the example Bik & Goldstein use – a public outreach campaign to show the non-science world at large what scientists really look like. Occasionally, entertaining or funny hashtags capture science’s imagination and your twitter feed may include delightful #AcademicValentines.

Alright – part of my motivation in this post was to get more of my science friends on Twitter. It’ll be good for your career, your research, your social network, your professional network. Maybe even your mental health (blowing off steam with some #overlyhonestmethods, perhaps?). Bik & Goldstein contains a lot more useful information for anyone contemplating entering the possibly overwhelming world of social media – I highly recommend reading the whole thing (it’s open access!). I’m reaching the end of my sales pitch here but to summarize, Scienceface McTwitterpants (that’s me) says that with Twitter, you can:

-network like there’s no tomorrow

-advertise yourself or things that are important to you

-assist friends and colleagues (e.g., suggest papers to everyone or someone specific)

-productively procrastinate

communicate! With big wigs, with people in other states and countries, with collaborators, with labmates, with basically anyone (if they’re on Twitter, of course)

-ask questions…in real time and/or at your leisure

-answer questions…also in real time and/or at your leisure

-keep up to date on science, current events and silliness

So sign up and tweet me (@sarahmhird)!


Bik & Goldstein. 2013. An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists. PLOS Biology.

3 comments on “A science-y tweet makes my heart skip a beat

  1. Good post, Sarah. I’m disappointed, though, that many of these “Use Twitter!” discussions (including the Bick and Goldstein paper) are so one-sided. How about an analysis/discussion of potential drawbacks of using Twitter? Even as a regular Twitter user, I’m concerned about some of these problems, and I think would-be users would do well to think about them. They include:

    – The fact that complex ideas are often reduced to sound-bytes.

    – The “Telephone effect”, in which ideas get distorted by being passed on with little context or reference to original sources.

    – The possibility that it conditions us to receive information in small doses (or to have short attention spans), which might make us less interested in focusing extended effort when necessary (e.g. reading or reviewing a long manuscript).

    – And of course, the obvious one, it’s another distraction. Early on, I found myself checking Twitter nearly constantly and felt that it was interfering with my work. I have instituted a rule that I only check Twitter on my phone (e.g. on the bus or while waiting for an appointment) and never open Twitter on my computer unless it’s necessary to post something with a photo or link. I think starting Tweeters would do well to keep track of their Twitter use and make similar adjustments as necessary.

    That’s just what I can come up with off the top of my head, but there are surely others as well. Has anyone seen a balanced discussion of these issues?


    • Sarah says:

      Those are really good points, Mike. I didn’t realize I was being so one-sided (yikes!), I think because Twitter has really had a positive affect on my relationship with Science with few drawbacks. I can see where advocating anything on social media might require some caveats, though. Twitter definitely requires some “common sense measures” on the part of the user, but I think that most people who use the Internet regularly should be appropriately prepared to handle Twitter. (Or is Twitter exceptional?) I love your “phone only” rule – that’s where I check Twitter the most, too.

      Also – I’m not sure it’s powerful enough to really affect my ability to focus on longer-term brain activities. I haven’t noticed any problems in that arena but I could be wrong about that and certainly people could respond in all sorts of ways – it’d be interesting to see some data!

      Thanks for the comment! You’ve given me some food for thought, for sure.

  2. Sarah says:

    A timely paper I learned about via Twitter!
    “Only a minority of university researchers are using free and widely available social media to get their results and published insights out and into the hands of the public, even though the mission of public universities is to create knowledge that makes a difference in people’s lives,” Greenhow said. “Simply put, there’s not much tweeting from the ivory tower.”( http://tinyurl.com/k3tamdr )
    And the underlying research (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjet.12150/abstract )

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